Iran: White Paper by Dr. Said Atri

The Islamic Republic of Iran just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the revolution that brought down the 54-year old Pahlavi dynasty. The 1979 Iranian Revolution is probably the most important and possibly the most consequential revolution of the post-WWII era. It promised to liberate not only Iranians but all of the oppressed people of the world.

In the months and weeks preceding the collapse of the Shah's government, inspired by slogans such as "freedom, independence, and Islamic Republic," millions of Iranians poured into the streets demonstrating against the western-oriented regime of the Shah who had ruled the country since 1942.  The Shah's rule was established when allied forces invaded Iran after WWII and forced his father, Reza Shah, to step down and turn over the throne to his son. This happened because Reza Shah had established some commercial ties with Germany despite having declared neutrality in the war.

Originally written in French, Marjaneh Satrapi's "Persepolis" is an autobiographical graphic novel chronicling her life growing up in Tehran and Vienna during the turbulent years of the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. "Persepolis" or "Takht-e Jamshid" was the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid dynasty (648-331 BC). One may wonder what the title "Persepolis" has to do with the life of an Iranian young woman growing up in the late 20th century. In the brief introduction of her book she writes since "[the revolution] this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism." She sees this image as being far from the true Iran and Iranians. "This is why writing "Persepolis" was so important to me", she declares.   


While telling her story, Satrapi seems to want to divert the attention of her readers from their recent memories of the events following the Islamic Revolution to the story of an upper-middle class Iranian family struggling to deal with and adapt to the revolutionary conditions in Iran. At the same time she reminds her readers of the glorious 2500-year Persian civilization and culture. She does that by cleverly inserting brief lessons of history in her narrative, highlighting some of the important political events of modern Iran and what she considers the root causes of the revolution.  


Marjane Satrapi was born in 1969 in northern Iran and grew up in Tehran. She tells the story of three distinct phases of her life: growing up as a child during the tumultuous early years of the revolution and war, living a good part of her confusing teenage years in Vienna, Austria, and returning to Iran, attending university, getting married and divorced, and finally fleeing Iran again. Her narrative is aided by her simple yet surprisingly rich and revealing black-and-white drawings. Her (English) narrative is also simple and unpretentious. It however effectively conveys the complexities of her thoughts and feelings as well as the events and circumstances she experienced.


Satrapi was born into a rather privileged family. In fact, she descends from one of Qajar shahs, albeit, she does not consider that a matter of any consequence because, she says, most Qajar kings had many wives and produced thousands of offspring. She attended a bilingual school in Tehran where she leaned French. Both her parents were educated, politically cognizant, and liberal-minded; her father was a successful engineer. A number of his friends who were imprisoned by the Shah's regimes were freed after the Revolution. Some were rearrested later by the Islamic government. A number of those were executed or murdered. Her Marxist uncle, who had escaped to the Soviet Union and lived there for a while was arrested and imprisoned by the Shah's security organization upon his return. He too was rearrested by Islamic Republic and later disappeared in prison.


At the time of the revolution Satrapi was only 9 years old. Not only does she charmingly portrays the events from the innocent eye of a child, she shares with her readers her thoughts, curiosities, her conversations with god, and her disillusionments about the contradictions that she sees not only in the chaos of the early years of the revolution but also in her own family and among her friends. Once, lying in bed with their live-in young maid who was in love with a neighbor's son, puzzled by her father's explanation that love between them was impossible because they were from different social classes, she takes comfort in the fact that she could still be in the same bed with her comforting her despite their being from different social classes.


When Satrapi turns 14, to free her from the harsh and restrictive conditions of revolutionary Iran, particularly for women, her parents decide to send her to Vienna, Austria. Her intimate account of the four years that she lives in Vienna, from her dealings with the nuns at a boarding house, to her association with a small group of young anarchists, to her disappointing love affairs, and to her becoming the school hash dealer, is so honest that sounds like fiction. It appears that no matter how much she tries to conform and fit in her free sprit and strong personality always shines through.


The third phase of her story, returning to Iran, attending college, and getting married to a man with quite a different personality than hers, reflects the challenges that many Iranian women like her face and struggle with in their day-to-day life under the rule of Islamic Republic. One thing that she has going for her that many other Iranian young women do not is her liberal-minded, supportive parents that stand by her all along. She realizes that adjusting back to the life in revolutionary Iran is not any easier than assimilating into the European culture. She even wonders about her true identity: Is she now more European than Iranian? On occasions she challenges the authorities but often manages to cleverly maneuver out of real trouble. At twenty-four, released from her failed marriage and, at the same time, frustrated by not being able to accomplish much as a woman under a regime that seems to have been structured based on restrictions and discrimination against women she decides to return to Europe. Once again, she has the full support of her parents.


A Brief History

The name "Iran" derived from Arians, was given to the plateau between the body of water known today as Persian Gulf, to the south, and Caspian Sea, to the North, by Indo-European migrants who settled there some time around 800 B.C. It is believed that these people descended from Medes and Persians. The first Iranian Empire was established by the Medes (Medians) in the seventh century B.C. A century later, by defeating King Astyages of the Median dynasty, Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemedid dynasty which established the greatest empire that the ancient world had ever seen, the Persian Empire, extending from Anatolia and Egypt to northern India and central Asia.


Today's Iran borders Iraq and Turkey on the west, Azerbaijan, Armenia, the Caspian Sea, and Turkmenistan on the north, Afghanistan and Pakistan on the east, and the Sea of Oman and the Persian Gulf to the south and southwest. Iran's population well reflects its 2500 years of eventful history. It includes Turks, Persians, Kurds, Turkmen, Balouchis and Arabs, not many of whom have remained ethnically pure.







The Arab Invasion and the Rise of Islam

Since the downfall of the Achaemanid dynasty (330 B.C.) by Alexander Iran has been invaded and ruled by many other conquerors including other Greeks, Arabs, Mongolians, and Turks. Many of these invaders ended up settling in Iran and adopting the Persian language and many other aspects of the Iranian culture. Over the course of its history Iran has been ruled by more than 17 major and minor dynasties many of which were founded by non-Persians who later assimilated into the Iranian culture and adopted an Iranian identity. 

Perhaps one of the most important turning points in the Iranian history was the invasion of the country by Arab conquerors in 635 A.D. who brought down the Sassanid dynasty. The Arabs also brought with them the Islamic religion and the caliphate system of government. In less than a hundred years Arabs extended their Islamic empire (caliphate) to the west as far as Spain and to the east to southern and central Asia. It was during this period that the dispute between an Umayyad caliph, Muawiyah (the fifth caliph after Prophet Mohammad), and a descendant of the Prophet, Imam Hussein, led to a split in Islam: Sunni and Shiite. Although in the beginning the differences between these two sects were marginal, over time the wedge between them widened. The Shiites believe that Imam Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, and eleven of his male descendents were the rightful and divine successors to the Prophet. While recognizing the four caliphs after the prophet as religious leaders, Sunnis do not consider them divine and attribute divinity only to Prophet Mohammad. About 850 years after the battle of Karbala, which ended with the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the third Shiites' imam, Shah Esmail Safavid made Shiism Iran's state religion and gave Shiite clerics a special status in his court as well as in the society. The reliance of the Iranian Moslems on the clergy was perhaps partly due to the fact that the holy book of Islam, the Koran, and just about all other Islamic texts were in Arabic, a language that not many Iranians knew.  


In 750 A.D., the Abbasids, who descended from Prophet Mohammad's uncle, overthrew most of the Umayyad caliphs and soon took control of the Islamic empire. The Abbasids had the support of Sunnis as well as Shiites. Their army employed many Persian and Turkic officers. The Abbasids established their capital in Baghdad. During the first century of their rule the Islamic empire made significant progress in arts, literatures, and sciences. Iranian scholars played major roles in these intellectual activities and many Persian customs and traditions were adopted in Baghdad.


The Fall of Abbasids and the Mongolian Invasion

From the early days of the Abbasid caliphate Iranians were given important functions in the affairs of the court and the empire. Many had been appointed as provincial governors. Over time some of these governors loosened their ties to Baghdad and started their own provincial dynasties. This eventually led to the demise of the Abbasid caliphate. In the following 200 years Iran was ruled by a number of small dynasties each controlling a different region and often battling each other for either survival or expansion of their territories. Among the more prominent of these dynasties were Samanids and Seljuks both of which had descended from Turkic-speaking warriors who once served in the Abbasid army. They too had assimilated into the Persian culture and heavily depended on Iranian scholars and statesmen in their governments. This period ended with the devastating and brutal Mongolian attack on Iran in the early 13th century. The attack was initially led by Genghis Khan himself who died before completing his conquest. Later his sons and brothers went on to take over and divide the country among them. Like the Arab and Turkic rulers before them, the Mongolians also soon adopted the Iranian language and culture and became Iranians. While once again Iran had been divided into large and small kingdoms in most of which Iranians had significant roles and influence, people enjoyed some degree of freedom and economic prosperity. This period was rather short-lived and ended in the late 14th century when a Tartar named Teymoor (Tamerlane), a devout Sunni Moslem, attacked Iran an established yet another empire. Both Taymoor and his son who replaced him after his death employed many Iranians in their administration and developed a keen interest in Iranian arts and poetry.


Taymoor's empire did not last long and started disintegrating after his death. Again Iran was divided into small kingdoms until the early 16th century when the Safavids, an Azeri Turkic-speaking family who claimed descent from the seventh Shiite imam, came to power.  The Safavids were able to bring most of the geographical territory of the old Persian Empire under the control of their central government. During a little over 200 years of their reign the country enjoyed unprecedented economic and cultural prosperity.


In the latter years of the Safavids dynasty the Afghan tribesmen took advantage of the weakening Iranian military and attacked the Iranian territory from the east and made their way into the Capital, Isfahan. The Afghans soon were challenged by an Iranian tribesman named Nader, who in a very short period of time not only drove Afghans out of the country and restored Iranian sovereignty over much of Afghanistan, he advanced his army as far as India. He also expelled the Ottomans from Georgia and Armenia and recaptured the Iranian coast on the Caspian Sea from Russians.


The Qajar Dynasty

After Nader was murdered by a member of his own tribe Iran again plunged into a period of instability during which rival tribal chieftains competed for power. For a short period of time, about thirty years, Karim Khan Zand who refused to call himself "shah" or king managed to unify the county. After his death the country again went into chaos until the late 18th century when the Qajars took control of the country and made Tehran their capital.


The Qajars were Turkmen from a region in Azerbaijan. While the Qajars were able to unify the country and restore a degree of stability to it during their reign they faced several important challenges some of which resulted in the loss of sovereignty over vast territories and some brought about significant changes in both political and social structure of the country. In 1803, Fath Ali Shah, the second Qajari king, decided to drive Russians from some parts of Caucasus which were considered Iranian domain during the Safavids. The Qajar army was badly defeated and Iran was forced to recognize the Russian annexation of Georgia and most of the Caucasus region. The Iranian Army suffered a second defeat by Russians a few years later that led to the signing of a treaty that gave Russia sovereignty over the whole south Caucasus. It should be noted that many Iranians consider this treaty a symbol of shame and humiliation in the country's recent history.


On the east, in 1805, the British challenge the Qajars over a territory in present-day Afghanistan which for long had been under Iranian control. Iran lost that war too. During the Qajar rule Britain and Russia both were interested in establishing themselves in Iran partly to curtail the Ottoman power and partly for potential economic and commercial advantages.  In fact, in 1907, Russia and Britain signed an agreement on Iran dividing its territory into two spheres of influence: the north for Russia and the south and east for Britain. Both were free to compete for economic and political advantages in the "neutral' center. At times the Qajar kings would try to exploit the rivalry between them to their favor. At the time many Iranians considered their rulers as puppets of these two powers, particularly the British. The suspension about the British has persisted in the minds of many Iranians until now.


One could consider the Qajar era the beginning of modern Iran. As a result of increased contact with Europe and the introduction of modern sciences, technology, and education during this period Iranian society started to change. The changes led to a movement for development of modern and democratic institutions. This movement would eventually lead to a constitutional revolution.


Constitutional Revolution

To support their extravagant life style and the costs of their government that was mired in corruption the Qajar kings were increasingly becoming dependent on Russia and Britain. Mozzafar-al-Din Shah had obtained several loans from these two countries. In return, he granted generous concessions to them. One example is the D'arcy Oil concession that gave the British 60 years of supply of oil at a very low price. Unhappy with the foreign influence and the concessions granted them by their king, in 1906, the Iranian merchants, the clergy, and some intellectuals began a movement seeking limits on the power of the monarchy. Following months of demonstrations in the October of that year an assembly drew up a constitution that imposed strict limits on royal power and called for an elected parliament. Later that year the old and ailing shah, Mozzafar-al-Din, signed it. The next monarch, Mohammad Ali Shah, who had the support of Russia unsuccessfully tried to stop the newly enacted constitution. His efforts were met by strong resistance that began in the northern city of Tabriz and soon spread to all major cities. Finally after months of struggle the Freedom Fighters triumphed, and Mohammad Ali Shah was deposed and went into exile in Russia. The Qajar throne was turned over to the deposed shah's 11 year old son, Ahmad Mirza. In the early years of its constitutional monarchy Iran experienced numerous crises many of which were instigated by foreign forces. The country's young monarch had neither the power nor the competence to properly deal with them.  


The Fall of Qajars and the Rise of the Pahlavi Dynasty

The relatively small Qajar army consisted of four foreign-commanded divisions; they were headed by Russian, British, and Swedish officers. The most disciplined and effective of these was an 8000-man unit, the Persian Cossacks Brigade, commanded by Russian officers. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution the Russians turned over the command of the Brigade to Iranians. In November 1918, A little-known colonel, Reza Khan, assumed the leadership of the Persian Cossacks Brigade.

In 1923, by an arrangement assisted by the British, the king appointed the commander of its arm forces, Reza Khan, as his prime minister and left the country for Europe. He never returned to Iran.


Originally, Reza Khan who seemed to wish to model himself after Ataturk of Turkey wanted to establish a republic in Iran and become its president. But the clergy was generally opposed to that idea. In 1925, the parliament that was mostly consisted of his men deposed the last shah of Qajar and conferred the crown on Reza Khan and his heirs. Later he was crowned as Reza Shah Pahlavi.


Reza Khan started his efforts to reform the country before he ascended to the throne. He first took steps to modernize the country's army not only to consolidate his own power but also to control regional tribes and bring some order to the land. In the sixteen years of his reign, with the help of some of his officers and young western-educated bureaucrats, he significantly strengthened the central government, built up a disciplined army, created a secular education system, founded Iran's first modern university, expanded the road systems, built a railroad system, and started a network of state-owned factories producing consumer goods. On the foreign affairs front, he abolished the capitulation law under which Europeans in Iran were not subject to Iranian laws, and significantly reduced the influence of Britain and Russia on Iranian affairs.


Reza Shah's social agenda seemed aimed at curtailing the influence of religion and the clergy. His secular education system broke down the clerics' almost exclusive control over education. He secularized the court system and excluded the clerics from judgeship. In an effort to emancipate women he opened the schools to girls and brought women into the labor force. He went as far as banning the wearing of the veil, a very controversial act at the time on which the religious establishment has capitalized ever since.


Reza Shah initially enjoyed significant public support for unifying the country, improving security, restoring the country's independence, and other accomplishments despite his dictatorial style of governing. Over time his tax policies, his insatiable desire to amass land and some of his controversial social policies made many Iranians unhappy. In addition, as a result of a number of commercial disputes, his relationships with Britain and Russia deteriorated.


In 1941, needing to use the Trans-Iranian railway to supply the Soviet with war materials, the Allied forces invaded Iran and occupied it for the duration of the war. They forced Reza Shah to abdicate and sent him to exile in South Africa where he died three years later. His son, Mohammad Reza was installed as the new shah.


Although the in the beginning of his rule the young shah promised to adhere to the constitution and allowed a relatively free parliamentary election, as time passed he increasing got himself involved in the affairs of government and challenged his prime ministers. In 1951, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized the British-owned oil industry. His action was met by strong reaction by Britain. Under British pressure Shah Removed Mosaddegh but soon had to reappoint him because of the overwhelming support that Mosaddegh had in the parliament. Mosaddegh in return forced the Shah into exile. Soon after, branding Mosaddegh as an anti-God communist, a military coup designed and orchestrated by the British and American intelligence services forced him out of power and brought the Shah back to his throne. Mosaddegh was arrested, tried and convicted for treason. Indebted to the West, the Shah established himself as a reliable ally of the West for the remainder of his reign.


Islamic Revolution

Like his father, Mohammad Reza Shah was keen on the modernization of Iran. He paid a special attention to his arm forces that significantly grew both is size and in the range of armaments under his rule. Among his noted domestic policies was a land reform which was a component of what he called the White Revolution; it also included a literacy campaign as well as a health and development campaign. After the 1953 coup the Shah had very little tolerance for dissent. With the help of his secret service he would suppress and marginalize all political oppositions and critics. While promoting economic and social reforms, the Shah would consistently resist democratic changes. Many of his policies provoked religious leaders who saw their status and authorities fast diminishing. The growing middle class and intellectuals who were interested in democratic reforms and political liberties were also discontented with the Shah's regime. In addition, because the socioeconomic changes had benefited certain (elite) classes of society disproportionately more than others, the economic gap between the ruling elite the disaffected population had significantly widened. In the mid 1970s the discontents among a wide range of social classes from the Islamic clerics and their followers to the working middle class and to the intellectuals with various ideological tendencies made them join forces with the aim of bringing down the Shah's regime. After a few months of competition among the revolutionary elements, under the leadership of, Ayatollah Khomeini who had returned from exile, the movement turned into a revolution based on an ideology tied to Islamic principles and values. The Islamic regime further consolidated its power through the eight years of war with Iraq that followed.


Today's Iran is quasi-democratic constitutional republic that is tightly controlled by a network of Islamic clerics headed by the regime's supreme leader. The supreme leader is the commander in-chief of the country's arm and security forces, he appoints the head of the judiciary, and his edicts trump all parliamentary and executive decisions.


The Status of Women in the Islamic Republic

Based on the result of a referendum conducted soon after the collapse of the Shah's regime in which, reportedly, 98 percent of Iranians voted for an "Islamic republic" as their preferred form of government, Ayatollah Khomeini charged the "Revolutionary Council" with the task of drafting a constitution for the Islamic Republic. On June 18, 1979 the Council unveiled a draft constitution which was later extensively revised by a 73-member "Assembly of Experts" of whom 55 were clerics. While the original draft was not very different from Iran's old (1906) constitution the revised constitution turned out to be significantly different.  It made sharia (Islamic laws) the principle foundation of all laws and regulations, included the principle of "velayat-e faqih" (guardianship of an Islamic supreme leader), and gave the Shiite clergy much more prominent roles in the government. On October 24, 1979, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was adopted by referendum. Since its adoption it has once been slightly amended in 1989. This amendment removed the requirement that the Supreme Leader be a "marja-e taqlid" (a high-ranking cleric chosen by a large number of Shiite Moslems as their religious guide), eliminated the post of prime minister and gave its executive authorities to the (elected) president, and created a Supreme National Security Council.


The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Chapter I, Article 4) requires that "all civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations be based on "Islamic criteria." This principle applies "absolutely and generally to all articles of the Constitution as well as to all other laws and regulations." With respect to the "rights of the people", Article 20 (Chapter III) stipulates that "all citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria." Focusing on the rights and the status of women under the Islamic Republic, Article 21 states that "the government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria, and accomplish the following goals:

  1. Create a favorable environment for the growth of woman's personality and the restoration of her rights, both the material and intellectual;
  2. The protection of mothers, particularly during pregnancy and childbearing, and the protection of children without guardians;
  3. Establishing competent courts to protect and preserve the family;
  4. The provision of special insurance for widows, and aged women and women without support;
  5. The awarding of guardianship of children to worthy mothers, in order to protect the interests of the children, in the absence of a legal guardian."

The interpretations of the sharia laws as reflected in the Iranian political, economic, and civil laws as well as in its penal codes however impose many restrictions on women. For example, women cannot run for the country's presidency, cannot be judges, and, if married, cannot apply for passports without their husbands' permission. In addition, a woman's share of inheritance is one-half of that of a man. Her "deyeh" (blood money) is half as much of a man's. In many cases family laws governing marriage, divorce, and custody rights also seem to favor men. It should be noted that some of these laws predate the Islamic Revolution.

To many Iranian women these restrictions and discriminatory laws are symbolized by the strict, mandatory dress code that requires women to wear "Islamic hejab" when appearing in public. There is no legal dress code for men. (The regime however encourages men to leave their facial hair partially unshaven and discourages them from wearing ties or neckties and other articles of clothing that are considered "western.")

Since the early years of the revolution, frustrated by seeing the achievements of almost ninety years of Iranian women's struggle for equality rapidly eroding, some woman activists have been attempting to have some of the rights that had already been achieved before the revolution restored while seeking fundamental reforms in the discriminatory laws of Islamic Republic. The "One Million Signatures Campaign" that began as a follow-up action to a peaceful demonstration against gender inequalities by many Iranian women in Tehran (June 2006) has turned into an international movement. The movement seeks to collect one million signatures demanding an end to all discriminatory laws against women in Iran. Many of the women involved in this movement have since been arrested and jailed. Some have been tried and convicted and are still in prisons.